Choosing the vehicle
From my research it appears that Toyota has the most extensive parts and service network of any vehicle in Africa. It is the brand which Africans themselves drive most of all. And with that knowledge the brand choice is settled. Now to the model choice of Hilux versus Land Cruiser. Single cabs, extra cabs, double cabs and wagons. Manual versus automatic transmission. Petrol versus diesel. Everything is discussed and considered. There is no right or wrong. There is just the best compromise choice to fit a budget imperative. And the not insignificant matter of personal preference.
In the end, we settle on the Land Cruiser Troopy. This is where we end up through a process of elimination. The Land Cruiser Troopy beats everything we look at from a mechanical capability and off-road reliability point of view. Its an off-road truck, not an SUV. Period. And it beats everything from a design point of view. That’s because the cab and the body are one in the Troopy. Like the old surfer VW combi bus, but for the bush. A kinda three-door panel van with windows. Unlike the single or double cab or wagon, it has the unique feature is being able to move from the drive cab to the load and living area without exiting the vehicle. Our house on wheels is a onesie. A one-piece. And it just looks so, so cool. At least to us, it’s the perfect vehicle.
Problem is Toyota SA stopped importing the Troopy back in 2015. The off-road vehicle network tells me a bad news story: there are none available in SA. I hear rumours that Toyota only ever imported 200 LC Troopy’s into the country. So, they are rare as hens’ teeth. Unfettered I reach back into my network of old work acquaintances, built from long service as a union negotiator in the automobile industry of SA. I email Toyota SA CE and the retired master auto retailer of McCarthy Motors fame. If these guys can’t source me a Troopy I think, no-one can. They come back to me promising a look through the Toyota plant and the parts and the retail chain networks. After a search, the result comes up negative. Not a single-vehicle.
I don’t give up. I reach into the off-road and overlanding community. Fitment centres and online user chat room communities. Broadening the search. Letting everyone know I’m in the market for a Troopy with under 50,000kms on the clock. The search goes on for weeks. And then suddenly, as if by a miracle, the planets align and I get a call from an off-roader saying a Troopy has just popped up on Gumtree and it’s in mint condition and reasonably priced with 42,000kms on the clock.
I click into action. My search process has made me acutely aware that the Land Cruiser Troopy’s are very, very scarce and get snapped up almost immediately when they come on the market. Everywhere I hear how they are trading at values well above their book value due to the excessive, and seeming insaturable, demand. So, no time to wait. I get on the phone and into the ear of the seller. Clearly outlining the hurdles the Troopy must tick to execute the sale – roadworthy certificate, Toyota service centre vehicle check and AA inspection, police record clearance. And saying unambiguously that if those hurdles are ticked I will pay his asking price unconditionally. All this to give the assurance to the seller that I am a serious buyer. Which I am. More than ever.
Thankfully every verification and performance box is ticked in a fortnight. The Troopy comes out with a clean record. Faultless and in mint condition. Days later the deal is done and I am driving the Troopy back from far Northern Cape a happy man. I’m the ecstatic owner of a 2011 Land Cruiser Troopy with 42,000 on the clock. The Troopy just hums on the road south to Cape Town. As I drive I feel within me a deep sense of gratitude to all those who helped me on this path and to the seller for parting with his machine. This is truly the mother of all off-road trucks to lose ourselves in across the tracks of Africa. I simply could not ask for anything more appropriate by way of vehicle choice for the journey that is unfolding like a movie in my head.
The Troopy needs a home
Now the Troopy needs to enter its conversion phase to become the home on wheels I dream of. My artist wife Lou quietly steps to the foreground, as is her way. We work together as one. Imagining every space in the load area, the cab, the roof. Talking through the memory of our own family history of safari routines: memories of what we do and how we do it when we camp. Designing and redesigning. Driven by two key design principles: trust your own experience and what you know from your bush trips of the past; and try to ensure that your design is simple and practical where everything you need is accessible in a single movement. This means that KISS (Keep it Straight and Simple) is our watchword to ensure that there is no unpacking and packing away stuff to access or pack away other stuff in all that we design. Repeat your known camp set up and take down routine precisely in your head to decide design choices. So we think what is our standard operating procedures when we camp. They include these quick and easy steps: finding a spot to camp and parking the vehicle on flat ground and positioning vehicle so solar panel maximizes full days sun; exit the vehicle and takedown table from beneath roof rack; open dual tyre arms and access back dual doors; remove camping chairs from gangway and layout the two chairs; remove the wood, cooking grid and cooking triangle from tyre bags and light fire; ensure that back area has easy access to food, water and cooking equipment; remove gas bottle and connect up gas to cooker; cook dinner. Ensure that the evening pack away is quick and simple with easy access to ablutions for brushing teeth, cleaning body top and tail and feet and hitting the bed for sleep with no sand grit between the sheets! This is the thought process we follow in every choice we make to design the Troopy layout, and in particular food and water storage, fridge location and the bin and drawer layout. All along we supplement our ideas with little innovations found online from Instagram and Pinterest Troopy pictures and through talking to other off-road travellers and researching the lessons from other Troopy owners specifically. The process of talking and researching and designing take weeks.
Selecting the overland conversion supplier and planning the build
With the picture of what we want to create in our minds, we go about measuring and drawing the layout of the bins and drawers in the load area. We design a request for proposals and send it out to overland vehicle conversion providers and collect their responses. We learn an invaluable lesson for overland conversions: price should not be the key driver of choice for who one entrusts with the conversion job. Our RFP to a bunch of overland conversion providers demonstrated that prices for all standard off-road fitment parts are all much the same. The difference between providers rests largely elsewhere. It rests on three things in my experience: firstly in the hourly cost of labour; secondly in the quality of customer relationship management with the client; and thirdly in the operational flexibility of their operations versus standard plug and go type of assembly. All of these are important. The last of these for us was critical. There is a ton of overland conversion products out there. And everyone has their view on every product. And at the end of the day, largely everyone is fitting the same basic products, with some variation in brand preference. So there is not much to differentiate providers when it comes to product and fitment quality standards and even product cost.
The advantages of one supplier over another rest in the choice based on the needs of overlander customer. For some plug and go and quick turnaround times is the answer. For others, deep customization is the key. The point is to be clear on what your preferences are and in what you want to create. Is your preference standardised fitment products in a plug and go type fitment process, with quick turnaround times on a set assembly cycle? Or is your preference high degrees of flexibility, slow customisation with deep innovation when standardised products don’t fit exactly with your needs.
In my case I needed a deep engagement with the actual operators in the creation of my house on wheels, I needed the ability for the workshop to move away from the fitment of standardised products and to innovate, design and fit new product where required, irrespective of the time it takes. In a word I needed my personal preferences to be looked after and really cared for. I was building my future home. I needed a provider who understood the detail of my needs, who could hear my experience and my ideas, who could advise on alternatives and help me think through alternative options, who could recommend their choice of best options and who could give me the space to take the final decision on which option suited my needs. I needed a provider who was not as much concerned with selling me product and making money from lots of bells and whistles but was concerned solely with my absolute requirement for simplicity, sturdiness, reliability and durability. A provider who would even keep me honest and true to my absolute requirements by saying no to product I recommend, if it did not fit the practicality and reliability test I set myself. And I needed some soft stuff: like just nice guys with deep integrity that I could work with and hang out with and talk overlanding stuff with. Guys that welcomed me to their shop for a coffee or to inspect a build process and to put my head under the bonnet or beneath the chassis whenever I needed to.
I found the perfect fit for my needs in a company called AluInnovations in Ottery, Cape Town, headed by the solidly experienced Cassiem Isaacs. He and his team turned out to be the dream team I needed. The quality of their work was outstanding, the depth of skill in their workshop was legendary, and nothing I needed was a problem. Literally nothing. Cassiem and his team always had a solution and found a way to make my dream a reality. Over the course of several months, they not only built the Troopy into my dream home on wheels, but they also became my friends and advisors. I will be forever grateful for the care they took and the outcome they created.
The end result of the build and conversion process
Without boring the reader with the detail of the build process that lasted several months, and included intensive research, selection and fitment of parts, we ended up adding the following to our Troopy Cruiser:
The basics and some extra under the skin:
Alucab Hercules Rooftop tent and Gullwing Awning
12 V dual battery system
Projecta dual battery regulator
CSA 100 battery storage and monitor
Multiple USB and Hella power points
Defa smart charge
AC power converter
120w solar panel
50L stainless steel water tank
ARB single head compressor
Racor fuel filter
Dynamat sound deadening throughout body, doors and cab area
GobiX dual spare wheel and hi-lift jack & spade carrier
The load and cab area:
4 rear pull out drawers with stainless steel worktops
Eco Toilet cupboard
Four Deep multi-level drop bins for gear storage
Art work and drawing paper package container
Centre console with drinks holders
Tray around transmission to hold accessories
USB port to keep Garmin In-reach mini permanently charged
Canvass work from Escape Gear
The Escape Gear team did the primary canvass work for the vehicle which included:
2 x spare tyre covers with deep pockets for dirty grids and rubbish
2 x Escape Gear seat covers
Transmission and dash covers
Garmin InReach Explorer for tracking and messaging and emergency recovery
Garmin 276 cx GPS loaded with Open Street Maps
2 X laptop pc’s
Go Pro 5
Winch with snatch
Hi-Lift jack and spade
2x ARB Max tracks
Toolbox equipped with spanners, plyers, fuses, hammer, wrench etc
Ratchet straps, tow ropes, jumpers etc
The Kgalagadi test run
With our cruiser converted into a classic home, we are ready to do our test run through the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. A ten-day and three and a half thousand kilometres round trip from Cape Town. An opportunity to sleep out in the Troopy night after night, follow a routine of setting up and taking down camp from sunrise to sunset. A chance to test the vehicle across the off-road sand tracks of the Kalahari dune fields. We head out one morning travelling north to Calvinia and to the Kalahari Bush Camp before entering the park at Two Rivers gate and driving north to Nossob on the SA side of the border. From there we head east into Botswana’s Mabuasehube Pans and spend several nights, hopping about from pan to pan, before taking the northern trackback in a westerly direction to Nossob and south again to the Two Rivers exit gate.
The cruiser does what is renowned to do: it cruises through deep dune sand tracks and on gravel and tar, equally seamlessly. Purring with a mature diesel growl. Not a stutter. Not a pause. Not a moment of uncertainty. The camp set up and takedown of the gullwing awning, coffee table, work table, clam tent and oz chairs, takes less than fifteen minutes per slot. And that’s without rushing. Efficient and easy all the way. Giving more time for coffee or sitting and thinking and looking than all of our fellow travellers. As we go we develop a small snag list of improvements we can make which will guide us through the final phase of the build process.
Final vehicle fitment changes
We are back at AluInnovations for final fitment changes. The list of vehicle fitment changes reads like a bunch of tweaks and nice-to-have extras. Nothing absolutely essential. But all together, we believe, will smoothen the way in our mobile home for our Africa overland adventure for the next year or more. The list includes:
Shower hose with rose fed by built-in 60L water tank
Canvass storage bags for clothes and crockery
Internal lights with white/red/yellow colour options (great to prevent bugs)
Footstep for easy night time back access
Some netted storage compartments on the ceiling in the load area
With those changes done the Troopy is ready. One last service to be done and we good to go.